By Drew Bond
Economic freedom leads to a cleaner environment.
To prove that, we can start looking forward by first peaking back. During the Cold War, environmental disasters abounded behind the Iron Curtain. BBC writes: “official figures show that the Soviet military dumped a huge quantity of nuclear waste in the Kara Sea: 17,000 containers and 19 vessels with radioactive waste, as well as 14 nuclear reactors, five of which contain hazardous spent fuel.”
That curtain was removed, but the pollution remained, and remains. “When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, warehouses and pits storing chemicals—mainly pesticides—littered the new but relatively poor republics,” Reuters news agency reported in 2009. “Chemical containers buried in the pits leaked, stockpiles were dumped or burnt.” They are leaking now, in the 21st Century, decades after the Soviets left the stage.
Autocratic governments leave a messy legacy, in part because of the tragedy of the commons. If everyone “shares” ownership in an asset then nobody actually owns it. If nobody actually owns it, everybody has an incentive to use as much as possible, and nobody takes care of the asset. Eventually it is damaged or destroyed.
Economic freedom, on the other hand, leads to a cleaner environment. If you own an asset—a home or a car, for example—it is in your best interest to take care of it. Economic freedom allows ownership, which encourages stewardship.
The best way to measure such opportunity is the annual Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. It covers 12 freedoms, from property rights to financial freedom. Its “findings shed light on the policy responses that have brought about more prosperous economies, better health care, an abundance of food and clean water, and a higher quality of life,” the Heritage experts write.
Many people think the future will be created in Asia. If that’s true, it should be a good place to look for environmental lessons learned. Consider the difference between the two economic giants of mainland China and the nearby island nation of Taiwan.
Taiwan comes in at number 6, near the top of the Heritage Foundation economic freedom ranking. It is listed as “mostly free” and boasts a thriving economy. Not coincidently, it is making large strides toward a cleaner environment. “In the past twenty years, Taiwan has seen a surge in environmental organizations, which to a certain degree have enjoyed a remarkable success in fighting pollution or affecting environmental policies,” a report from the Brookings Institution noted in 2015. Freedom encourages people to lobby for change.
China, on the other hand, comes in well down the economic freedom scale; at number 107 it is “mostly unfree.” Most notable in the 2021 rankings is that for the first time in 27 years, Hong Kong was dropped from the rankings due to China’s increasing control of it. That lack of freedom is reflected in many areas, including in the Chinese government’s blatant disregard for the environment.
In spite of what it is saying on the global climate stage about its commitment to a clean energy future, what the Chinese government is actively doing is building an additional 250 gigawatts of coal power, the equivalent of 416 utility scale power plants. It can do this because its top-down leadership doesn’t give people a say in how they get their energy. The point is not to bash coal, and in fact coal can be a part of a clean energy future with the help of innovation. The point is that the Chinese government continues to say one thing and do another, leaving its people less free and its environment less clean.
In Taiwan, on the other hand, voters were asked whether or not to shut down nuclear power plants, which provide clean electricity with no carbon emissions. Some 60 percent of Taiwanese voted in 2018 to maintain the country’s nuclear plants.
Here in the U.S., a new presidential administration has taken office. It says that: “Creating the best, most innovative clean technology in the world is not enough. We also need to make sure it is used by households and industry in order to achieve aggressive emissions reductions.” So it’s worth asking how we can achieve those goals.
The Biden administration should look to countries such as Taiwan for guidance, not China. What they will find is that economic freedom is the answer.